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Algorithms Replaced Gatekeepers and Lowered the Bar on Quality


The rise of social media has had a massive impact on the art we see, consume, and interact with on a daily basis. Some of that impact was positive, some negative, but one of the most radical changes has also been one of the most detrimental: the demise of the gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers were the tastemakers of the past: the magazine editors, television produces, publishing executives, and gallery curators. In other words, the people who decided what work was seen and what remained in slush piles or piled up on the cutting room floor.

In their heyday, these powerful people made for a formidable obstacle and important line of defense. Nothing reached a broader audience without at least a partial stamp of approval.

Then came social media.

The Internet had already started democratizing the process of “getting noticed,” but “going viral” was still relegated to email forwards until Facebook came along with the news feed. Almost overnight, everybody had a platform, and the gatekeepers were stripped of their power. Anybody with an Internet connection could have their work explode. This popularity, in turn, meant major outlets had to share the work or risk being seen as stuffy and out of touch with their audience.

This change was positive at first. But what began as a refreshing influx of work that might never have been seen—creative people and creative ideas getting their due—turned into an overwhelming flood of content. Too little signal, too much noise. And so the same social media giants who displaced the gatekeepers came up with algorithms that would help sift through the mountains of content. Algorithms that prioritized popularity and shareability above all else.

Algorithms that, over time, have done more to stifle creative expression and bury important ideas than the gatekeepers ever did.

Photography has not been immune to this change. As iconic magazines folded, Instagram flourished. Infinite scroll and a screen in every pocket translates into an insatiable need for content. But not just content, popular content. Likable content. Shareable content.

Instagram and Facebook’s algorithms made sure this content made it to the top of your feed and got the most views. Marketing-savvy photographers saw this, and began shifting their style and strategy to coincide. The race to the lowest common denominator was on. Now, many photographers are more interested in “optimizing their social media strategy” than honing their craft or finding their creative voice.

Which article do you think performed better: “How to Grow your Instagram in 2019” or a thoughtful video on “The Artist’s Ego“?

It’s a catch-22. Artists create work because they want it to be seen. So which do you sacrifice: the integrity of your work, or its potential reach? Do you share something bland that will appeal to more people, or something true to your artistic vision that may never break through the algorithmic ceiling?

Let me be clear, the gatekeepers had it coming. The pre-algorithm age wasn’t some bastion of quality over quantity where everyone got a fair shot and the best work was immediately noticed and highlighted. If you knew someone who knew someone, you were much more likely to get “noticed”—still a reality in a lot of the art world and beyond. The rise of algorithms and the demise of traditional gatekeepers made sure that [almost] anybody’s work could be seen, appreciated, and explode into the public consciousness no matter their gender, the color of their skin, or whether their message was “sanctioned” by the people in power. But we lost something, too.

At their best, the gatekeepers of yesteryear were giants who recognized quality and placed the public interest ahead of their prejudices. People who elevated work that was interesting, innovative, or challenging. When Richard Rovere turned in an anti-segregation “Letter from Washington” to the New Yorker, founding Editor Harold Ross went on a bit of a racist tirade about it in the notes, but ultimately finished his note by writing, “I suppose we’ve got to print this…”

Recalling the experience later, Rovere wrote:

The man clearly despised what I had written for his magazine. He thought it was nonsense. To a degree, he regarded me as an enemy of his values. Yet the article was factually accurate, reasonably well written, and a serious piece of reporting by a man he had asked to cover Washington, and that, for Ross, was that.

Later, when E.J. Kahn, Jr. wrote an article defending two of his friends who were being attacked in the press as pro-communist, the conservative Ross again chose quality over personal prejudice. “Jesus Christ, Kahn, why did you have to write this goddamn piece?” he told Kahn. “Now I have to run it.” (Source)

These examples are obviously a bit removed from photography, but the point stands: People (some people) can evaluate the quality and impact of a piece of work—be it writing or photography—with a subtlety that escapes the most advanced artificial intelligence, to say nothing of the relatively simplistic algorithms that decide what you see in your Facebook and Instagram feeds. Has any algorithm ever overlooked its prejudice towards clicks?

Popular and sharable does not necessarily equal good; most of us can agree on that much (I hope). And while critics and tastemakers weren’t always been the best judges of what is, their evaluation of “good art” went far beyond the adolescent idea that “attention = quality.”

There is no going back to the days before social media, and I’m not even sure that we should. But I would love to go back to the days of chronological feeds, before social media algorithms undid some of the positive impact that social media initially made. These algorithms were born out of an interest in profit. More popular = more eyes = more ad clicks = more money. They weren’t a good idea when they were announced, and they aren’t a good idea now. Yet they continue to shape our perception of what’s worth our time and attention.

Out of sight, out of mind; when some of the best work remains out of sight, only clichés come to mind. Long exposure waterfalls. The solitary hiker on the craggy cliff overlooking the sunset or aurora borealis. A beautiful woman leading her companion by the hand through a lavender field. Text memes that are so popular they overwhelm the photography on a photo sharing platform, and Instagram is forced to purge accounts with 13M+ followers.

There’s no easy solution, but it’s our responsibility as individuals to occasionally bypass the algorithm and go digging through the slush pile. To create and appreciating exceptional and important work. To find great work that never got noticed and share it. To prioritize craft over clicks.

For better or worse, we have to be our own gatekeepers now.